(from newspaper articles and information provided by Boomer Winfrey)

Click on image to enlarge

One of the most inhuman practices which existed in America was the convict lease system. After the Civil War, Southern states leased their convicts to private industry for forced labor. With the advent of the AJim Crow Laws" most of the convicts were Black, often receiving long sentences for minor crimes. When a convict laborer died, he was replaced by another convict laborer at no cost to the private industry or the State. In essence, this system put a higher value on a mule working in the mines than a man. convictcem1.JPG (173185 bytes)Lynn Bostic, Carol Moore, and Bill Grinder at Sharps Lane below Militia Hill at the entrance to the abandoned Knoxville Iron Company Mine works.  Bill owns this section of property and gave us permission to go exploring.
convictcem2.JPG (191258 bytes)Water discharging from the abandoned Knoxville Iron Company mine.  Mr. Steve Vowell owns this property and he gave us permission to go exploring. The first mine in Coal Creek to use convict miners was the Knoxville Iron Company Mine located at the base of Vowell Mountain. Jobs were plentiful in other Coal Creek mines, so the practice of using convict miners at the Knoxville Iron Company Mine was not challenged for many years. By 1891, new laws had been promulgated by the Tennessee Legislature which gave increased rights to free miners. One involved the outlawing of the use of company money (scrip) as legal tender.  Another law allowed miners to elect one of their number as check-weighman, the person entrusted with inspecting and weighing the coal and determining which miners were paid and how much for the coal they mined.

In April 1891, Tennessee Mining Company in Briceville demanded that their free miners sign a contract agreeing to abandon their legal rights. When the miners refused, they were fired and evicted from their company-owned homes. Tennessee Mining Company brought in Aa class of labor that could be depended on" (i.e. convict miners). Not only were the free miners losing their jobs, but they knew that the convicts replacing them would meet the same fate as those at the Knoxville Iron Company Mine, where mass graves dot the lower slopes of Vowell Mountain.  This was the start of the Coal Creek War.

convictcem5.JPG (187180 bytes)Some of the numerous upright fieldstones marking the graves of convict miners who died in the Knoxville Iron Company Mine in the late 1800's.

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convictcem9.JPG (178380 bytes)Site of Fort Anderson on Militia Hill.


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Remnants of building foundations at the abandoned Knoxville Iron Company Mine.

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Thousands of free miners and the entire Tennessee Militia were involved in the Coal Creek War.  Fort Anderson was built on Militia Hill overlooking the town of Coal Creek (now Lake City) and the Knoxville Iron Company Mine to maintain order.  On numerous occasions, the free miners surrounded contingents of the militia bringing convicts to work in the mines.  The captured soldiers and convicts were put on trains and sent packing back to Knoxville.  Near the end of the War, the free miners captured the commander of Fort Anderson and laid siege to the fort.  General Sammuel T. Carnes, with the entire Tennessee Militia armed with heavy artillery and Gatling guns, was sent to Coal Creek to end the War in September 1892.

The free miners of Coal Creek lost the final battle, but they won the War.  Governor Buck Buchanan lost favor with voters due to his ineffective handling of the situation.  He lost his attempt at re-election in 1892.  Shortly thereafter, Tennessee abolished the convict lease system.  Other States soon followed, thus abolishing the system in the South.  As described in the program AChain Gangs" on the History Channel, the free miners of Coal Creek are credited with abolishing the convict lease system in the South, an institution that was even worse than slavery. 

convictcem10.JPG (182736 bytes)Trench (breastworks) surrounding the site of Fort Anderson.

convictcem11.JPG (192904 bytes)View from Fort Anderson looking through the Wye Gap into the town of Coal Creek (now Lake City).  During the Coal Creek War, the militia would fire cans filled with mud onto the streets of Coal Creek as a reminder that the militia was in control.

convictcem7.JPG (183631 bytes)Vowell Cascade located between Militia Hill and the abandoned Knoxville Iron Company Mine.

convictcem8.JPG (201441 bytes)Trash, tires, and appliances dumped from Vowell Mountain Lane that have deposited at the base of Vowell Cascade.

The most prominent remnants from the Coal Creek War are the trenches on Militia Hill, the iron-stained water flowing from the mine, and the graves of the convict miners who were literally worked to death in the mine.  Tires, trash and discarded appliances are modern additions to the landscape.


Link to 1902 Fraterville Mine Disaster Cemeteries

Link to 1911 Cross Mountain Mine Disaster Cemeteries

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